James Stewart and Phillip Alford in Shenandoah (1965)

Stewart's Moral Fight

As the American Civil War ebbs its way towards a conclusion, the fighting gets ever closer to Charlie Anderson (James Stewart - Cheyenne Autumn) and his farm in the heart of Virginia. With war so close his sons feel it's their duty to go and fight, but as obedient men don't go against there father's wishes who disagrees with fighting someone else's battles for something you don't believe in. That is until his youngest, Boy (Phillip Alford), is mistaken for a soldier and is taken prisoner, causing Charlie and his sons to go looking for him, fighting for something they do believe in.

You could say that "Shenandoah" is a movie split in half with the first half of the movie setting up the ethics of the Anderson family. Now it has to be said that this first half could be seen as quite cheesy, with Charlie Anderson running his farm with all his grown up sons living at home helping out, obeying his command, going to church and basically living what could be contemplated as the one time ideal picture of American life. Think "Bonanza", "Waltons" and even "Little House on the Prairie" and you should have a rough idea of what this first half strives to build up.

James Stewart, Rosemary Forsyth and Doug McClure in Shenandoah (1965)

But whilst it is all rather nice, with Charlie dishing out fatherly advice with an aged wisdom, discussing marriage with one of his daughter's nervous suitors and explaining that whilst the war is on their doorstep he doesn't believe in fighting for something you don't believe in, it does all make sense. In fact the scene where Charlie explains to his sons why he disagrees with the war is beautifully written and really gets across one of the movies many messages about war.

The second half of "Shenandoah" is where Charlie does for want of a better term of phrase start his own war as his youngest son, Boy, is taken prisoner. Again this side of the movie has a message and that is it's okay to fight to protect your own. As such there are a few well shot action scenes as Charlie and his children go in search of Boy, as he is strangely known. And after a rather pleasant first half this second half throws up some surprises and a not so much brutal side but a violent side interweaved with emotion.

As such this double sided storyline manages to mix action with some quite amusing scenes of light heartedness. As Charlie leads the family in saying grace there is barely a word of thanks, amusingly so, the same can be said for the weekly pilgrimage to chapel which Charlie goes out of a promise to his wife before she died. This light heartedness most certainly peps things up making you smile before then delivering the emotional side of the story in the second half.

Much of why "Shenandoah" works is down to James Stewart, perfectly cast as the Anderson patriarch. Stewart has this air about him as a person which makes him believable as someone who has years of wisdom and who doesn't believe in fighting for something which isn't his battle. In that first half of the movie you get the light hearted side of Stewart, the easy going farmer with a glint in his eye and a mischievous side. Yet come the second half and Stewart finds the right level of rage and emotion as he and his family go in search of Boy.

Whilst James Stewart makes "Shenandoah" such a mighty movie it does also have a rather impressive supporting cast with the likes of Doug McClure, Glenn Corbett, Patrick Wayne, Rosemary Forsyth, Phillip Alford, Katharine Ross, Jim McMullan, George Kennedy, Denver Pyle, Strother Martin and Harry Carey Jr. all appearing as either members of the Anderson family or as soldiers.

What this all boils down to is that whilst "Shenandoah" is technically a western with many elements you would expect from the genre, the actual storyline is much more. It's a surprisingly powerful movie with an important message about fighting for what you believe in. And central to making it a powerful movie is James Stewart who gives a brilliant performance as the patriarch of the Anderson family.